Thursday 12 April 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and the Anti-War Rightwingers

Politics sometimes makes for uncomfortable and uninvited bedfellows. Take poor old Jeremy Corbyn for instance. Since the left took over the Labour Party, we've been plagued with stories about cranks, weirds and racists taking out membership and getting spun by the media, sundry centrists and the Tories as some how indicative and typical of our party's transformation. The never-ending difficulty of "left wing" anti-semitism is a prominent case in point. Another strange group of people, who wouldn't ordinarily be seen within a million miles of supporting Corbyn's Labour are groups of right wingers. Among them you can count Peter Hitchens and sundry back bench Tories, Nigel Farage, and Arron Banks. They, like Corbyn, are opposed to military action against the Assad regime following an apparent chemical attack on Saturday. What's going on here? How can it be this bunch of anti-working class shysters find themselves on the same side as Labour's leader and the majority of left wing opinion? Are we seeing a convergence on matters of foreign policy?

Of course not.

Let's consider Jeremy Corbyn's positions on foreign affairs. He is variously characterised (if not caricatured) as someone who puts a minus wherever the government of the day, regardless of colouration, puts a plus. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, in each case Corbyn has not just voted against bombings and war, he has via his associations with Stop the War actively campaigned against them. The official politics of StW aren't the best in my view, but this is not the horizon that limits Corbyn's positions. Clearly influenced by Lenin's approach to imperialism and the neo-Gramscian view of international relations, he understands there is a pecking order in the world with the United States at the top, and its allies/vassals each occupying a subordinate perch. With Marxists, he understands this is the key prop of a fundamentally unjust social order, and yet he differs with the Marxist position in two crucial aspects.

In the first place, Corbyn's internationalism isn't about defeatism, the idea that wars waged by big power states abroad can be turned into revolutionary openings at home. Instead he holds to a left wing but marginalised view well within established conventions: what you might call strong multilateralism. This favours strengthening international law under the aegis of the United Nations and, crucially, ensuring all states are equal before it. In practice this means the UN would acquire the trappings of a supranational state whose law, and therefore sovereignty would come above the others. The second string to Corbyn's bow is his pacifism: the simple but straightforward view that war is almost always wrong. Therefore Labour's position on Syria remains one of a negotiated solution followed by institution building, just as it would be for virtually any other live conflict or flashpoint. Naturally, Marxists armed with their theories of imperialism, of core and periphery nations, or the emergence of a decentered 'Empire' of diffuse and multiplying sovereignty would regard this as muddled and utopian. Perhaps it is, but the fusion of a Marxist understanding of global political economy and power politics, combined with pacifism and a stress on international law makes up Corbyn's strong multilateralism. It is what it is.

This is opposed to the dominant approach in the foreign policy establishments of the Western powers, and the armchair warriors of pundit planet: liberal interventionism. It pays lip service to the salience of international law and the UN - when it suits - but calls for military action, either by a coalition of nations or by the US as guarantor of the international order, on the grounds of egregious human rights abuses and/or violations of democratic norms. Consider, again, responses to Syria and Venezuela, for example. Note, this is how liberal interventionism presents itself. In practice, it is more often than not a justification for the playing out of power political moves. The build up to Iraq, of course, saw this hypocrisy displayed to full effect. For all the homilies about human rights, democracy and so on the occupying powers set up a corrupt, sectarian state whose stupid oppression later facilitated the rapid take over of huge chunks of its territory by a few thousand Islamists. Their rhetoric of freedom was belied by their looting of Iraq's oil industry and ensuring reconstruction contracts, coincidentally enough, went primarily to American and British companies.

All very well, but what has this got to do with our "pacifistic" right wingers? There are two strands here, one I'm certain patrician(ish) Tories like Hitchens share: the well worn Tory scepticism of grand schemes. Interventionism in its Blair/Cameron guise thinks you can build democracies by dropping bombs on people, of using munitions to blast the slate clean and starting over with an off-the-shelf constitution and a timetable for parliamentary elections. Critiquing liberal interventionism might be informed by democratic assumptions, or colonialist ones (they're not "ready" for democracy). Overlapping with this is the self-styled "realist" approach to foreign affairs. That is what matters in the world are Britain's interests, not principles or commitments to supra-national outfits like the EU and the UN. As far as Hitchens, Banks and Farage are concerned they are not convinced that Britain's interests are served by getting more tangled in the Syrian civil war, nor by ratcheting up the tension with Russia. For them, with Brexit looming, Britain's interests (which is synonymous with their interpretation of its commercial and big power interests) should be focused on trade deals and renewing its "romantic" ties with the Commonwealth in a 21st century retread of Lord Beaverbrook's desire to transform the ex-empire into a free trade area. They are not opposed to the unilateral exertion of Britain's military power, they have merely set their face against it in this instance.

What we are seeing then is not a convergence of views, but a momentary coincidence of them. Whatever you think of Corbyn's position, his is based on addressing the injustice and global imbalances of the international order by introducing strong regulation via the UN. This is anathema to the "anti-war" right for whom all that matters are British interests, however they define them. To pretend that they share the same position is intellectually vacuous posturing - a position, one might say, specifically contrived to avoid having to engage with the substance of Corbyn's critique of international relations, let alone its more consistent embodiment of liberal, internationalist and social democratic values.


Keith said...

very clear, thanks.

Unknown said...

Hi Roger!
From what I've observed in student circles, libertarianism is not prominent in the UK or in wealthy, north-western Europe at all in terms of party politics. Where individuals do claim themselves libertarian they tend to be happy to cling to whichever party promises to shrink the state most effectively, but will then compromise on where their interests overlap and contradict with their chosen political party's broader interests (as big fans of capitalism they certainly don't lose sleep over this). That's not too dissimilar to the US to be honest, where the GOP no doubt gains the lion's share of the libertarian vote, but still doesn't satisfy the foaming-at-the-mouth Rayndian devotees. The Conservative party in the UK harbours most of them now I'd say, though UKIP certainly harboured a few before the 2016 EU referendum. the thing is, libertarians all pride their individuality so much that they seem to coalesce purely at random and not through concentrated organisation. They'll find other institutions, political parties and organisations that are already at work and attach themselves willingly according to their understanding of whether doing so would advance their libertarian interests. You'll never see a libertarian movement in the UK like a working-class movement where people actually organise and build things up from scratch. The US Libertarian Party is perhaps an exception, but only because radicalism in the US seems to articulate itself in the libertarian cause, I reckon due to the legacy of McCarthyism and utter disdain of anti-capitalism in any of its forms that is drilled deep into the average US citizen's psyche.